The Quick Report

New Study Says Violent Video Games Decrease Stress, Don’t Increase Aggression

It’s long been assumed that action-based video games make people more aggressive, but the opposite is true. A new study has reinforced that “violent” video games decrease the stress hormone cortisol, which is beneficial in many ways.

Playing violent video games doesn’t make people more violent, study finds

Video games featuring action content have incessantly been denigrated and accused of making people more violent and a host of other ills. This long-debated content reached ahead in 2019 after a series of US school shootings. Many commentators blamed video games for inspiring violence.

However, in a surprising twist, a new study has found that despite this popular belief – the opposite is true. Findings published in the scientific journal Physiology & Behavior showed no increase in aggressive tendencies in people who play violent video games. The most shocking discovery was that playing violent video games decreased the stress hormone, cortisol, in some players.

Testing procedures & findings

The study involved 54 males. Each participant was randomly assigned to play either a violent or non-violent passage from the video game “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.” The gamers played for 25 minutes. Researchers checked the levels of cortisol and testosterone in the participants before and after gameplay taking saliva samples.

The researchers also had participants complete questionnaires to assess the “Dark Tetrad.” This looked for traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and everyday sadism.

In addition, participants were put through an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure aggressive tendencies.

The Implicit Association Test was used to evaluate aggressive cognition. This examined how likely participants were to associate themselves with aggressive thoughts or behaviors. In this regard, researchers found no significant differences between those who played a violent game and those who played a nonviolent game. This suggests short-term exposure to a violent video game may not influence aggressive thoughts or tendencies.

“What was surprising for us in the end was that playing a violent video game did not affect aggression whatsoever,” said Gary L. Wagener, a doctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg and study author. “Even taking physiological effects and personality into account…it provided even beneficial physiological effects.”

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Violent video games reduce stress hormones which have many benefits for the body

The results of some of the physiological effects on the participants were quite unexpected. In contrast to suggestions from previous studies, the researchers found no significant change in testosterone levels in either group.

Most surprisingly, cortisol levels decreased in the group playing the violent game. Researchers say this suggests that rather than increasing stress, playing a violent video game may produce a relaxing effect on players.

This was demonstrated most markedly in participants who were found to have higher levels of Machiavellianism.

Machiavellianism is a personality trait where a person focuses on self-interest and manipulation.

Participants who had higher levels of Machiavellianism and who played the violent game had a more pronounced decrease in cortisol.

Researchers say this finding suggests that the response to violent video games might be based on an individual’s personality traits.

However, those with the other traits in the Dark Tetrad – narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism – did not demonstrate any significant moderating effects.

“The average person should take away from this study that there is no clear picture that violent video games are harmful for players,” said Wagener. “They do not necessarily increase aggression in any way but can even have positive relaxing effects for players.”

What effect does cortisol have on the body?

Cortisol affects almost every organ and tissue in the body. It is often called the stress hormone, as it mainly helps regulate the body’s response to stress. It is a glucocorticoid hormone that the adrenal glands, the endocrine glands on top of the kidneys, produce and release.

Because cortisol is a steroid hormone, it also controls metabolism in the muscles, fat, liver, and bones. In addition, glucocorticoids also affect sleep-wake cycles.

Cortisol also plays a key role in:

  • Controlling the body’s use of proteins, carbohydrates, and fat through metabolism.
  • Regulating blood pressure.
  • Regulating blood sugar.

The levels of cortisol in the body must remain steady (homeostasis). If cortisol levels rise higher than normal or drop lower than normal, it can have a harmful effect on health, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Previous studies have had mixed findings

To be clear, past research has often pointed toward a link between violent video games and aggression. However, other studies also indicated there was no correlation.

For example, a meta-analysis by Sherry (2001) suggested violent video games have a minor influence on adolescent aggression. A 2013 study (DeLisi et al., 2013) of juvenile delinquents showed that exposure to violent video games significantly predicts adolescent aggression.

A 2019 study published in the psychology journal Frontiers found “a significant positive correlation between exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression.” However, for those with a good family environment, it moderated and had a mediation effect on aggression.

Multiple studies between 2008 and 2017 (Ferguson et al., 2008). (Ferguson et al., 2009, 2012; Ferguson, 2013, 2015; Furuya-Kanamori and Doi, 2016; Huesmann et al., 2017), found adolescent aggression cannot be predicted by exposure to violent video games. Instead, they found it is closely related to antisocial personality traits, peer influence, and family violence.